You wait in the lounge until you are given your bus number. You walk in a line from the lounge to the bus, then from the bus to whatever sight you are supposed to see, then back to the bus, then off to the next sight, then back to the bus and back to the ship. By the end of the day you might have seen some Beverly Hills mansions, maybe the waterfront of St George’s or the colonial streets of Cartagena, but chances are you have seen it all either thru a bus window or by sprinting the sidewalk behind your local guide.
We are on a cruise that is supposed to show us the mystics of the Caribbean, the splendor of colonial Mexico, the jungles of Costa Rica and grand cities of California. Our ship does 34 stops in the space of 98 days. However, the vast majority of these stops last 10 hours or less, the standard being from 8 in the morning till 6 in the afternoon. There are some overnights, but not very many. The standard shore excursion is 5 to 6 hours, where we are shepherded onto the bus, off the bus, back on the bus and back to the ship.
The mistake we made was booking almost all the excursions we could at the beginning of our journey. We went with the crowd in Tenerife and St Lucia and Grenada and Aruba, and after that we did it again in Colombia and Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Some of these excursions were good, by all means. Grenada was compact and interesting, in Aruba we did an amazing trip in a submarine and both Antigua Guatemala and Cartagena, Colombia, are always a pleasure to visit. But we did get a bit tired of being driven around like cattle, never having the extra ten minutes to take the extra look at the exceptional piece of city square or landscape that we some times encounter and fall in love with.
But then came Mexico, and San Sebastian. San Sebastian is a small village in the mountains some two hours bus ride from the port of Vallarta, where the Costa Luminosa docked. We would see an extraordinary beautiful piece of Spanish architecture in the middle of an equally extraordinary beautiful Mexican valley, the program had told us. So we paid the fare, one hundred Euro each, and then we walked the line from the lounge to bus no 27 wondering what we would get.
What we got was Ruby, a Mexican guide with a blue shirt, an orange bandana and a steel hard perception of how a cruise tourist should behave.
San Sebastian is maybe three blocks in square. The bus was parked at the town’s only entrance, and the only way to get lost is if you deliberately walk into somebody’s house to hide under a bed. We told Ruby that yeah, this is a beautiful place, but we would rather walk around on our own for an hour or so. Lunch at a restaurant by the parking was included, but we would rather have lunch by ourselves even if it meant paying for something that otherwise would have been free. Could she please tell us when the bus was supposed to leave? We would, of course, make sure we made it back to the parking in good time.
– No, the answer was. We could not walk around on our own. We were to follow her.
– Eh, we said a bit bewildered. – There is no way we could possibly get lost in this town. Why not just tell us when the bus is supposed to leave? Isn’t that the easiest thing for everybody?
– No, we were told. This was not the easiest thing for everybody. The easiest thing for everybody was that everybody followed her around.
– But we do not want to do that. When does the bus leave?
She gave us the long and hard stare, like the army sergeant at boot camp if you refuse to do the mandatory 8 hour march of the day.
– Ok, as you like. The bus leaves in 30 minutes.
– We gave her the stare back. No way the bus leaves in 30 minutes. The sightseeing is not over, and then there is lunch…?
– The bus leaves in 30 minutes. You be at the bus then. I go there now. You better follow me.
To make a long story short, we cut our stroll thru the «extraordinary beautiful piece of Spanish architecture» short before it hardly had began, and we were by the bus in 30 minutes. The bus did not leave, of course. Our group went to lunch. We were too angry to have lunch in the same room as that woman, so we waited by the bus. Then the group came out, then the group went to a coffee plantation to get some local Mexican coffee. We waited by the bus.
We waited by the bus till it left, more than an hour after Ruby said it would. She had of course, been lying to us on purpose to make sure we did not go anywhere on our own. She was the boss of this group of tourists, and we should only see this «extraordinary beautiful Mexican valley» the way she had decided that we should be seen. We might have paid 200 Euros for our two excursion tickets, but she still had the right to treat us like naughty schoolchildren if we had any ambition of not seeing everything her way.
We went back on the bus when it finally left. Back at the port we walked in line from the bus to the ship, telling ourselves that never again should we pay a single centavo for a guided tour from the good ship Costa Luminosa.
The moral of this story, however, is that it does not always pay to behave like a dirt ass prison warden when you take tourists on tour. Back onboard we complained to the ships tour manager, and we got both an apology and our money back. Ruby, we hope, got some serious talking to. That we do not know for sure, because she worked for a local tour company that the ship had hired for the occasion. What we do know for sure is that her manager got our feedback, and what we presume is that he did not enjoy reading it.
This does not change the fact that we are done with booking shore excursions. There is only one exception to this, we want to go to Pearl Harbor when we are in Honolulu, and because of the short stop (8 to 18 again) it could not be done in any other way. But walking in line like chickens behind the mother hen carrying a sign with a bus number on it? No way, Ruby! No way Jose!
And one more thing. This story is not really a complaint about our cruise. We are not on this ship because we believe that the 34 stops will show us the world. We have actually visited most of these 34 places already. We are on it because of the 60 days or so that we spend on the ocean. We are here because we can sit on our balcony watching the dolphins, the sunsets and the flying fish. We are here for the feeling of total freedom and endless travel. We are here for the feeling of travelling the world, not because we need to see every little bit of it.
All this we get in abundance, and that is worth every penny we have paid. We will tell you more about that later.